You are on page 1of 7

Projet fin dtudes 2013

May 27, 2013

From subways to self-immolation, public suicides are becoming disturbingly frequent in the
country of joie de vivre. That can leave a toll on witnesses and those unwittingly involved in ending a life


he morning before Valentines Day,

a dark-haired man in a black coat stood at
the far end of a subway platform, counting
down until the next train arrived. It was
around 9am at Odon, a busy hour at a relatively busy mtro station. He wouldnt have to wait long. As the figures
0:00 started blinking on the overhead clock and the tunnel filled with the roar of an approaching train, the man
took a deliberate step towards the platform edge. He bent
over, put his hands on the ground, and quickly lowered
himself onto the train tracks. The horror of what was about
to happen instantly dawned on everyone on the platform.
Screams of Non! filled the station. The man disappeared
as the train slammed into him. It was over in seconds.
Standing two paces away from the suicide, Fanny saw
everything. I saw him go down, she said. I had the reflex to turn away. There was a loud thud. Everybody was
screaming. The train screeched to an emergency halt in
the middle of the station. On board, people lurched and


toppled forward like a line of dominos from the inertia.

The passengers didnt know what had happened, said
Fanny. But they saw the looks on the faces of people on
the platform and I think they understood. The 26-yearold marketing manager had been idly watching the man
from behind just moments before he ended his life, and the
horror hasnt left her since. In her mind, she still sees the
man on the tracks. He had been standing sideways, frozen
in a sort of stride. At the time shed had the wild and absurd
thought that he would never cross the tracks on time. I
remember thinking: what is he doing? she said. But there
was no doubt about it, he wanted to die.
After the impact, people had quickly made for the stairs,
emptying the platform. There was someone continuously
screaming and sobbing, said Fanny, who believes it might
have been the train conductor, a middle-aged woman. But
she couldnt have done anything. Nobody could have. It
happened so fast. The indelible memory of how the tunnel went cold like a crypt that morning still gives Fanny the

Projet fin dtudes 2013

chills. It was like a place of death, she said. It didnt feel

like a place you go to everyday. Fanny declined to share
her full name, saying her experience could not compare to
the grief faced by the man and, by now, his family.
There are 11,000 suicides in France each year, a fraction of the 195,000 people hospitalised following a suicide
attempt annually. According to OECD figures, France has
one of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe twice
that of the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in
Germany and the United States. It is the first cause of mortality for French people in their thirties. A further 2,200
people take their lives each year without making the official
lists. Many family members jump on the slightest shadow
of doubt and would sooner call a death an accident than a
suicide a possible remnant of French Catholicism, which
considers voluntary death a sin. The fact that there is no
option to list suicide as a cause of mortality in French
death certificates and no systematic inquiry into the causes
of non-natural deaths unlike in most European countries
further helps to mask these numbers.
Many different reasons can drive a person to suicide,
and it is often a challenge to decipher the motives behind
such a final, fatal decision. But in France, suicides tend to
be more public in nature than anywhere else, lending a
particular authority to what voluntary death means. In the
most recent context of the euro-crisis and growing disillusionment with the countrys future, the phenomenon of
public suicide is being seen as a sort of protest against societys failing conditions. Above all, it is sparking a painful
and contentious debate over Frances oppressive workplace
conditions and its consequences.
Last Tuesday, May 22, a 78-year-old man entered the
Notre Dame cathedral amidst a throng of tourists, went up
to the altar, stuck a shot-gun into his mouth, and pulled the
trigger. Dominique Venner was a far-right award-winning
historian who had been campaigning hard against the governments decision to legalise gay marriage, signed into law
last weekend by French president Franois Hollande. New
spectacular and symbolic actions are needed to wake up
the sleep walkers and shake the anaesthetised consciousness, Venner wrote on his blog, just hours before the act.
On May 16, a 50-year-old man with a history of mental
health problems forced his way into a nursing school near
the Eiffel Tower and shot himself in front of 12 school children aged six and seven. Later, one boy told a French news
channel that he had thought the school had been invaded
by terrorists.
On February 13, a jobless man burnt himself to death
in front of a public job search agency in Nantes. Frustrated
after a long period of futile job-hunting, 33-year-old Djamal Chaar wanted his self-immolation to be public statement about Frances socio-economic malaise. He hasnt
been the only one. At least a dozen men and women have
set themselves on fire since 2011 for similar reasons.

The overall suicide rate, while stable, has actually decreased slightly over the last few years. Yet despite this decline, railway suicide is becoming an increasingly common
form of these spectacular and symbolic deaths. French
transport operators are relatively discreet, referring to railway deaths as accidents graves or serious accidents, but it
is no secret that suicides on the rails are a disturbingly frequent phenomenon. Frances national railway SNCF sees
up to 400 fatal accidents each year, of which a large majority are voluntary deaths almost double the annual number of suicides on British railways. The phenomenon is
on the rise: according to SNCF president Guillaume Ppy,
there were 30 percent more railway suicides in 2012 than
in the preceding four years. In the Paris mtro, which carries the highest volume of traffic in Europe after Moscow,
at least one person kills himself in the subway every three
days. Paris transport authority RATP says there were 195
such suicides in 2008. By contrast, the New York subway
averages about 26 suicides a year.
There is a collective dimension to this particular type
of suicide, explained Rbecca Hartmann, a psychologist
who has been working for Frances national railway for nine
years. Although large French firms have in-house doctors,
SNCF went a step further in 1997 to create a specialised
department dedicated to providing psychological support
for staff, as they kept running into suicide attempts. To
die by throwing oneself before a train, according to Hartmann, is a cry to the collective. Its not at all like a suicide
in ones room, she said. Its not a private affair. The idea
is to shout out to the collective about ones poor wellbeing.
The person knows that this will affect hundreds of people
who are stopped in their day, so there is a message somewhere to society.
Indeed, Frances high suicide rate is widely seen as a
sign of the countrys socio-economic malaise. When Hollande called the self-immolation of Djamal Chaar a personal drama in March, he was met with scorn. To the
French, public suicides are widely understood not as acts
of personal drama but as an outcry against an ailing society. It is not difficult to see where this angst is coming from:
France is experiencing its highest unemployment rate in
17 years, leading to increased pressure in the workplace.
The countrys waning influence in the European Union has
led Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, of the Peterson Institute for

Projet fin dtudes 2013

International Economics, to ask if France is a peripheral

country a burning point of shame for the French, who
have been eyeing Germanys stable economic growth and
burgeoning political clout following the euro-crisis.
Various studies have sought to capture Frances moody
disposition during this time. A 2012 European quality of life
survey, commissioned by the European Union, found that
the French are the least optimistic about the future after
Greece, Portugal, Italy and Slovakia. A public opinion survey released by Pew Research Centre this month concluded that the French are becoming dispirited faster than anyone else in Europe. A recent study by sociologist Claudia
Senik at the Paris School of Economics went even further:
her study, titled The French Unhappiness Puzzle, suggests
that its not the crisis, silly gloominess just happens to be
an integral part of French culture. The consensus is overwhelming: something is rotten in the state of France.
It is unsurprising then that in such a context, public
suicides are being seen as cries of protest. Sociologists say
these are emanating from the most vulnerable in society.
Typically, suicide is considered an act of desperation for
those who are unable to accept or deny their social circumstances. But in France, the public aspect of suicide gives the
act a particularly vindictive tone. It is a ghastlier version of
the child in tears throwing a fit, whose intuition is: One
day Ill die and youll be sorry. Each public suicide is so

goes the reasoning akin to holding a mirror to the face of

society. The idea is that this will force society to examine
itself for having created the hopeless conditions for such
wasted lives. The message is being delivered in collective
overtones, and increasingly, it is being heard. In an op-ed
for leading newspaper Le Monde, French sociologist Alain
Ehrenberg proclaimed that todayindividual suffering is
a declaration that has value for acting on a common problem. But what is the common problem?
For the past three years, Fabienne Leonhart has been
working at Suicide coute, a 24-hour hotline that receives
22,000 calls a year. Over the telephone, Leonharts grandmotherly voice has a calming and non-judgmental tone
an important quality that has played a part in pulling
hundreds away from the brink of death. According to the
43-year-old, it is too simplistic to single out a factor as the
main cause of suicidal depression. The answers could be a
conflation of anything ranging from mental health issues
to workplace stress. Which caused what? Its impossible
to say! It can all be related, said Leonhart, who has fielded
crisis after crisis from callers with obvious mental health
problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The
conundrum, she says, is whether to read depression as a
cause or as a symptom: is something caused by depression
or the other way around?
Since the economic crisis, however, Leonhart admits

Projet fin dtudes 2013

the hotline has been receiving an increasing number of

calls from people who have unemployment or work-related issues. We are in a difficult economic climate, she said.
Theres no denying that there is an enormous amount of
pressure in companies. It is a phenomenon of the crisis.
When asked how she went about convincing these people
not to kill themselves, Leonhart swiftly corrected the question. Its not that they want to die, she said, sounding a bit
pained. They want to stop suffering.
Involuntary killers
Suicide always leaves behind the indelible aspect of trauma.
And in the case of a public suicide, this trauma extends
beyond the circle of family and friends to complete strangers. Few experience this as frequently and as intimately as
train conductors, who are the first to see the silhouette of
a person on the tracks, the last to see him or her alive, and
the ones who are directly implicated in the destruction of a
life. It is a peculiar and rather grotesque hostage situation.
Although railway suicide is a violent decision, explained
French national railway psychologist Hartmann, it is also
an act of passivity, since it transfers the act of killing to
someone else. In this case, a train conductor and his train
unwittingly become the agents of destruction. The train
conductors are thus taken hostage, writes ric Fottorino,
former editor of Le Monde, in his latest book Suite un
accident grave de voyageur. Their machine becomes part
of the machination. A person wants to die. Another especially does not want to kill. He kills, despite himself.
When it happens, there is practically nothing we can
do, said Cdric Gentil, a train conductor who blogs for
French newspaper Liberation and author of Mesdames et
messieurs, votre attention sil vous plat. By the time you
understand what is going on, its too late. The distance
needed to bring the train to a stop is too long. The 33-yearold still vividly recalls the woman who had leapt in front of
his train a few years ago. Horrified, he had acted instantly.
He pulled the emergency brakes, hit a switch that released
sand onto the tracks, and cut off the electric current in the
rails. These gestures would later be extremely important,
not only for the woman, but for Gentil himself.
Then he waited helplessly until the train came to a halt.
When youre in that situation, the wait is endless, said the
tall, brown-haired man. I felt as though time was passing
in slow-motion. Once the train finally stopped, he could
no longer see the woman from his window. Heart in his
shoes, Gentil came out of his cabin and looked in front of
his train. He had stopped just 40cm in front of the woman.
She was dazed but completely unharmed.
Most of Gentils colleagues have not been so fortunate.
According to Hartmann, every train conductor experiences on average one railway suicide attempt during his
career. Many risk prolonged psychological trauma and
some enter depression, often replaying the death in their
minds. In 2012, SNCFs team of psychologists made 50

emergency on-site visits to the scene of the suicide in order to quickly stem the overwhelming sense of shock and
guilt. Even though they know in theory that they couldnt
do anything to prevent it, they go through the what ifs,
said Hartmann. It is a feeling of total helplessness, to have
been active in the death of someone.
One of Gentils female colleagues struggled from crippling guilt after running into two suicides. She took a long
time to get over the first one, said Gentil. She was really
traumatised. Then it happened again. Its like all the work
that shed had gone through to recover, its as though its
for nothing. For Gentils friend, the memory of the mans
face is particularly horrifying. The person killing himself
had stood on the tracks and stared directly into her face,
as though to defy her, until her train rammed into him.
Ive asked myself many times why people choose to die
this way, said Gentil. We talk about it a lot amongst us. I
dont think its an innocent act. Amongst train conductors,
there is a flash of anger against railway suicides that appear
premeditated. Gentil remembers being confused by the simultaneous relief and rage he felt when he was speaking to
the woman who had tried to kill herself. I was facing her
alone, nobody else would have heard me if I had said how
I felt to her, said Gentil, suddenly looking very tired. But
out of respect for the woman, I could never have done it.


Projet fin dtudes 2013

Instead, he said to her: Dont worry, youre safe now. Help

is coming.
Gentil has no illusions about how lucky he had been
this time. I dont ask if itll ever happen to me, he said of
the possibility of killing someone who jumps in front of
his train. I ask when. Its like having the sword of Damocles hanging above my head. I know its going to fall on me
someday, I just dont know when or where.
It is never a clean death. Gentil says it can take firemen
at least three hours to recover the grisly remains of a body.
They have to look for pieces of the corpse under the train
or in the tunnel where its very dark and difficult to see, he
explained. Sometimes someone will have to move the train
a bit backwards in order to remove the body. Only half of
the suicide attempts are successful and survivors are never
quite whole again. A train weighs hundreds of tons, said
Gentil, who drives the RER A, a suburban train with one of
the highest volumes in the world at 1.2 million passengers
a day. If people do survive, they are mutilated for life.
The ramifications of each railway suicide touch thousands. It takes seconds for a suicide to throw a line into
complete bedlam, and hours before things go back to normal. Traffic is disrupted for at least three hours, a halt that
snowballs into more cancelled trains and delayed schedules. This knock-on disruption is likely the point of such
a public death. Yet for the most part, passengers who are
not privy to this cinema of horror react either with indifference or simple irritation. Its sad but true, said Gentil.
When most passengers realise theres been another serious accident, they roll their eyes and go: Pfffff! In his
book, Fottorino points out the irony of this final failure:
Unknown till the end, they are the et ceteras, he writes.
Despite their public act of desperation, nobody will try
to remember them...the ones who try to shake up the very
society that rejects its most vulnerable.
But its not entirely true. First-hand witnesses like Fanny are often stirred by what they have seen. The trouble is
finding the company they crave. In the virtual world, many
witnesses eventually find their way to public transport forum They anonymously share their experiences in comments threads so they can feel less alone
in their shock and grief; there is a certain comfort in the familiarity of the reactions of other witnesses. For days after
the mtro suicide, Fanny hungrily scoured the internet for
something, anything, to lace a human feeling around what
she had seen. It was on this forum that she found some
solace and my request for an interview. Fanny needed to
talk about it. It helped her feel better.
A form of protest against the workplace?
The growing drama of suicides in France is putting the focus on large firms, many of which shed thousands of employees through voluntary departures between 2006 and
2008. In 2008, the media spotlight fell on France Tlcom
for its wave of 30 suicides each year. Although this number

is in line with the French national average of suicides and

thus not especially high, some of these acts were especially
dramatic. One man allegedly stabbed himself harakiristyle in the middle of a meeting. A woman leapt from
a fifth-floor office window. Another employee jumped off
a highway bridge. Similar stories abound from La Poste
and Renault. Perhaps because some work-related suicides
have been particularly imaginative and perhaps because
they are the simplest to identify and control for, they have
become a frequent headline in French media. In March,
Le Monde dedicated a spread to la souffrance au travail,
where a series of articles analysed French suffering in the


context of high workplace stress, unemployment, social
tensions, and suicides.
Side-by-side, the numbers and commentary are compelling. According to the Economic, Social, and Environmental Council (Cese), at least 400 suicides each year are
directly related to work dissatisfaction. In a 2008 survey
of 1,210 employees, Etienne Wasmer, a labour economist
at Sciences Po, found that many experienced work-related
disorders (mood 72%, sleep 70%, psychological disorder
52%), anxiety (60%), and abnormal fatigue. According to
the OECD, the French incidence of depression was about
twice that of Germanys in the mid-2000s. One governmental study found that French consumption of anti-depressants amounted to 543 billion euros in 2000. At France
Tlcom, some employees keep anti-depressants on their
desks, out in the open.
For too long, mental suffering at work has been considered as the exclusive result of the personality of the
employee, wrote Michel Debout, a prominent doctor and
one of the founders of the National Union for Prevention
of Suicide, in one of the articles published by Le Monde.
Managers try to make this a medical problem: they speak
of fragile people and rarely of people made fragile.
Indeed, the French are increasingly outraged at the
capitalist ills of large private firms. Last year, former France
Tlcom CEO Didier Lombard was probed for the firms
many suicides in 2008, the result of harsh and surreal administration that placed unnecessary pressure on workers in
order to get them to voluntarily resign. On May 7, a leaked
internal document dated 2006 reveals how Lombard had
spearheaded the aggressive shedding of 22,000 workers by

Projet fin dtudes 2013

2008. In the document, Lombard declared: We need to

stop being the mother hen...In 2007, I will make these departures happen one way or another, by the window or by
the door.
To explain the particularly violent case of France Tlcom and the countrys persistently high levels of workplace
dissatisfaction overall, some economists have pointed
fingers at Frances rigid labour regulation. According to
a 2012 study by Wasmer, high levels of stress are typical
in countries with a lot of job protection. Indeed, with its
generous employment protection, France has one of the
worst levels of workplace stress amongst OECD countries.
It is an ironic proposition about the perverse effect of too
much job security: when labour regulation makes it too
difficult and costly to fire employees, managers resort to
piling pressure onto workers or neglecting them until they
resign. According to Wasmer, firing someone can be as
personal and formalised as filing for a divorce. The result
is varying levels of workplace harassment, known in France
by the more profound term harclement moral. And with
the current economic climate, more employees are willing
to suffer workplace harassment than to look for a new job.
The price of job security becomes their mental and emotional wellbeing. Employees initially feel that they are doing this for their family, their children, so they are capable
of accepting a lot, said Jean-Louis Bally, a member of the
Observatoire de stress, an independent organisation composed of academics and labour activists and whose main
purpose is to monitor and lobby against large firms that
create risques psycho-sociaux occupational stress and suicide risks. But when it becomes personal, when the management starts to disdain them, they become unhappy,
said the 69-year-old. They take more sick leave, they fall
into depression, and eventually you get suicides.
The former France Tlcom employee has strong views
on whether enough prevention is being done in large firms.
It depends how you view prevention, said the whitehaired, bespectacled man contemptuously. If you view it
the way big companies do, then prevention is just about
hiring psychologists to help depressed people. But thats
just treating the consequence, not the cause. In truth, there
may be no better way to do it. Most outreach programmes,
including the French governments national strategy for
tackling suicides, are also based on identifying and providing psychological support to those at suicidal risk.
Venner, Chaar, and hundreds of other unknown suicide
victims appear to grasp intuitively the social implications
of self-destruction. Unhappy with their lives and with the
societal conditions that made this unhappiness possible,
they lashed out at the world by choosing violent and public

deaths. It is their final act of vindication, the ultimate protest. In France, voluntary deaths like theirs are laden with
social value, intended by the suicidal and interpreted as
such by the living. The collective unity of this understanding is perhaps unsurprising, given the countrys particular
cultural and intellectual authorities. Although he argued
against the act himself, philosopher Albert Camus, whose
works are taught in many French high schools, famously
declared that suicide was the only serious philosophical
question: it represented the rejection of an absurd life in
a mute world. France also gave us Emile Durkheim, the
father of sociology, who in 1897 presented the worlds first
monograph on none other than the topic of suicides. In his
seminal work, Durkheim stripped away the moral overtones of the church, presenting suicide for the first time as
an explicable social phenomenon. Voluntary death is an
act of choice, he reasoned, the terms of which are entirely
those of this world: it is a rejection of life by those who are
poorly integrated in society and morally confused.
But it may be the French Revolution that best explains
the sentiment behind Frances public suicides. According
to Patrice Higonnet, professor of French history at Harvard University, voluntary death was seen as a libertarian
and individualised gesture. Suicide lacte le plus libre
was just one more facet of mans right to be free. During
the French Revolution, Jacobins and Montagnards alike
saw communitarian value in public self-destruction. Voluntary death would shame their enemies and serve as a
pedagogical example for their peers. These suicides were,
Higonnet explained in a 1989 conference, assertions of
martial dignity and political high-ground.
With a background like Frances, suicide turns perversely into an index of high civilisation. As in tell me
your suicide rate and I will tell you your cultural sophistication, explains Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God.
Richard Brody, a Francophone film critic at the New Yorker and one of several commentators who criticised Seniks
happiness study, believes so too. A self-consciously intellectual society like the French, he wrote in March, may

Projet fin dtudes 2013

just be less willing to say they are happy. The unfortunate

price of this sophistication, of course, may be the countrys
high suicide rate.
But for all the grandiose intellectual overtures and
thoughtful academic studies surrounding suicide in
France, too much scrutiny is still considered taboo. Most
studies tiptoe around meaningful details such as linking
demographics and causes to modes of suicide. For example, SNCFs department of psychological support may specialise in railway suicides, but they have yet to compile data
on what sort of people throw themselves in front of trains.
Its a taboo subject, said Hartmann carefully. We dont
have any study on the profile so to speak of people who kill
themselves. Why choose a train over overdose? It is delicate
to interpret this. We should avoid hasty interpretations.
The SNCF psychologist is not the only one to use such
cautious language; although suicide is a trending point of
discussion in France, talk of the phenomenon often takes
on a tone of clinical reverence, inevitably creating distance
from the subject itself.
It raises a troubling question: is it possible to understand the motives of suicide from a perspective so rationalised and formal that we use language the suicidal does
not? Camus himself declared that not naming things properly adds to the misfortune of the world. Perhaps, suggests Fottorino in his book, it is impossible to understand
something well without being tempted by it too, thus the

reluctance to tread the murky waters of a suicidal mind.

The problem is contagion: talking about suicide can give
ideas, like dangling fire before a pyromaniac. It is amongst
the reasons for which French transport operators prefer
to call suicides serious accidents, explained Gentil. First,
its a legal thing. You cant call a suicide a suicide unless a
formal police investigation concludes as such. Second, the
word suicide is too strong, he said. It would make people
These euphemisms no longer soften the blow for certain
mtro users like Fanny. More than ever, the term brings
her back to that cold morning when she watched the man
disappear under a train. Although she was badly shaken
by the incident, she forced herself to go back the next day.
You have to resume your journey, your life, your day, she
said. I knew I had to face it sometime, so it was better to
do it as soon as possible. Standing where she had last seen
the man alive, she gingerly checked the railway tracks for
any sign of his suicide from the day before. There wasnt
a trace. Around her, people behaved as though nothing
had ever happened. This time, the train docked normally,
and people got on and off. Like so many others before this
one, the loss of a life had made but a fleeting dent in the
clockwork of Paris. But some things will never change for
those involuntarily involved in a public suicide. A couple
of paces away from Fanny, a woman stood a little too close
to the edge of platform. The sight made her go cold.